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It was an alleged to it is in something of a celebration.

Helen Gott was simply a month from graduation. Across the candlelit table from her at the Tippin’ Inn in Syracuse, N.Y., was her stable boyfriend, Ernie Davis, a current college graduate himself. It to be a acquainted scene because that the couple, that had first met at the restaurant 2 years earlier.

Promise you’ll pertained to my graduation, Gott teased. I promise, replied Davis, that was much more subdued than usual since of the treatments he to be receiving because that a recurrence the leukemia.

Curiously, Davis ordered chicken livers for dinner. My doctor said they’re great for mine blood, that sheepishly explained to Gott.

“He’d never ever ordered chicken livers before,” Gott recalled. “I knew the chicken livers were no going come help. … ns knew exactly how sick that was.”<1>

The two struggled awkwardly v what would certainly be your last dinner together. Two weeks later, Davis - the very first black player to success college football’s Heisman Trophy - was dead. He was 23 year old.

                   ****Life was never easy for Ernie Davis. His parents split up shortly after he was born in brand-new Salem, Pa., and his father passed away in an accident before his first birthday. Davis was raised under austere problems by his maternal grandparents in Uniontown, Pa., a coal-mining town 50 miles southern of Pittsburgh.

Sports were a huge part of Davis’ early on life and also helped that cope v a major stuttering problem. St. Luigi Cardinals star Stan Musial to be from adjacent Donora, Pa., and NFL quarterback Johnny Lujack to be from Connellsville. 2 childhood friends from Uniontown — Sandy Stephens and also Bill Munsey — go on to football stardom at the college of Minnesota.

Baseball to be Davis’ finest sport as a youngster. Together an 8-year-old the earned a point out on a midget baseball team, competing with guys three and also four year older.

At age 11 the was rejoined with his mother, who had actually remarried and also was living in Elmira, N.Y. Young Davis excelled in baseball, basketball and also football in elementary school school. Together a high schooler in ~ Elmira free Academy, he was a prepare All-American in basketball and football.

In basketball, Davis was a starter together a high institution freshman, once he stood 6 foot tall and weighed 175 pounds. The led the Academy to 52 directly wins in his last two years, averaging 18 points a game. His basketball an abilities led to countless college scholarship offers however his true love to be football, where he started at end before moving come halfback. ~ averaging 7.4 yards a bring throughout his varsity career, much more than 30 colleges available Davis soccer scholarships, including many predominately white schools, a rarity because that a black color athlete in the 1950s.

While Davis to be flattered to be recruited by nationwide powerhouses prefer UCLA and Notre Dame, they didn’t have actually a chance. His idol, Jim Brown, had actually played just 90 miles under the road, at Syracuse University, which led to a professional career through the Cleveland Browns the the nationwide Football League. Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder to be a consistent visitor come Elmira in his efforts to attract Davis to sign up with the Orangemen, but it to be the enhancement of Brown to the recruiting process that sealed the deal.

Brown’s course to football stardom to be eerily comparable to Davis'.

He spent the an initial eight year of his life with his grandm in Georgia prior to rejoining his mommy in lengthy Island, N.Y. In high school, he averaged 38 points a video game one basketball season (setting a lengthy Island season scoring document later broken by Carl Yastrzemski before his hall of fame baseball career through the Boston Red Sox).

When Brown an initial arrived at Syracuse, the college was in the at an early stage years the racially completely its strong programs and Schwartzwalder had just gone through his an initial racial scandal. “Don’t be another Avatus Stone,” Brown to be warned, introduce to a black color Syracuse football recruit whose obvious “crime” was date a blonde majorette.

Things had improved part by the moment Davis to be being recruited, but Brown still had words of caution for him.

"I told him it wouldn't it is in a cakewalk, due to the fact that we're quiet breaking under barriers,” Brown said. “I don't think the was gaining that article from too plenty of schools (that were recruiting him), due to the fact that there wasn't a totality bunch of united state at any kind of one place to tell the the truth.”<2>

When Davis arrived at campus, he was offered the exact same No. 44 the Brown had wore. (Davis brought the legacy forward, helping recruit the next No. 44, Floyd Little, near the finish of his career). NCAA rules retained freshmen from play varsity sporting activities in 1958, however Davis stood out in practices and led the freshman team to an unbeaten season.

It was in his sophomore season that Davis earned the nickname “the Elmira Express” at halfback and also defensive back in those solitary platoon days. Davis averaged 7 yards a carry and also scored 10 touchdowns if earning All-America honors that season, forcing his roommate to do a difficult decision.

As a freshman, Davis had actually helped recruit john Mackey, a tough running ago from brand-new York City, promise to be his roommate if he concerned Syracuse. Coach Schwartzwalder additionally promised the Mackey could take over Davis’s No. 44 when Davis graduated.

"I don't desire to be number 44," Mackey told him. "I don't want to beat behind anyone."<3>

Mackey rather switched to tight finish where the went on to an All-Pro and NFL hall of fame career.

That 1959 Syracuse team went unbeaten and claimed a national championship in the 1960 cotton Bowl wherein Davis scored 2 touchdowns - including an 87-yard pass reception - in a 23-14 win over Texas to lid an 11-0 season.

Life newspaper reported that Syracuse players accused the Longhorns of dirty play, especially versus their three black players:

“Once when he was plowing through the line, stated Negro fullback arts Baker, ‘one of them spit ideal in my face.’

“John Brown, a negro lineman, played sleep to nose against 235-pound Texas tackle Larry Stephens. To goad him off balance, Brown claimed, Stephens preserved calling him ‘a big black dirty nigger.’ Finally, Brown warned him no to call him that again. Once Stephens did, Brown swung.

“Afterward Stephens apologized to Brown. Yet Brown had currently forgiven him. ‘That Texas young was simply excited,’ the said. ‘Let's forget it’.”<4>

Davis, who was vote most valuable player because that the game, found that years of gyeongju discrimination in the American south brought well beyond the play field.

Davis and also his 2 black team members were forced to leaving the segregated post-game banquet ~ Davis got his MVP award. As soon as Davis’ white team members learned the the arrangement, castle vowed to leaving the banquet, too, in a authorize of team solidarity, however Syracuse public official nixed the plan.

Before his small season Davis was named a preseason All-American by Playboy magazine, whose sporting activities editor Anson Mount dubbed Davis the biggest college running earlier in history. Top top the Orangemen’s very first play native scrimmage the fall, Davis ran 80 yards for a score versus Boston University. He finished the season together the nation’s third leading rusher v 877 yards and 7.8 yards a carry, repeating as an All-American. Davis also found time in his junior year to play basketball in nine games for the Orangemen, averaging 10.2 points and also 9.6 rebounds a game.

Davis ran because that 823 years in his final football season, scoring 94 points and also breaking 10 the Brown’s school documents while top Syracuse to its second bowl victory in three years.Davis’s affect on the video game he loved to be cemented in history in a three-day expectancy in early on December.

On Dec. 4, 1961, he ended up being the very first black player to be selected an initial in the national Football league draft in ~ the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. Ironically, Davis to be selected through the Washington Redskins, which was still an all-white team, the last in the NFL.

Redskins owner George Marshall had been under press for years to integrate the team but, together the most southern team in the NFL, enjoyed a strong southern base. Yet Interior Secretary Stewart Udall authorize an ultimatum: Either sign a black player through the start of the 1962 season, or the internal Department would certainly revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease ~ above the then-new D.C. Stadium.

Although many football watchers supposed Marshall to usage the No. 1 choose to take one of the optimal white prospects, like Roman Gabriel, Lance Alworth or Merlin Olson, he opted because that Davis.

here was a complication, though: the last 2 Heisman winners - Billy Cannon (1959) and also Joe Bellino (1960) - had signed v the competitor American soccer League. Furthermore, Davis had vowed he would never play because that Marshall and was providing the Buffalo receipt of the AFL, who had likewise drafted him, a severe look. Within a week, Davis was traded come the Cleveland Browns wherein he would sign up with his football mentor Jim Brown in the backfield.

On Dec. 6, 1961, Davis to be formally known as the country’s height college football player, agree the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic society in new York City. Davis became the first black player to insurance claim a Heisman in the 27-year background of the award. Davis edged out Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson by just 53 points in what is quiet the third-closest poll in Heisman history. His old elementary institution pal, Minnesota quarterback Sandy Stephens, finished 4th in the voting.

After the trophy presentation, Davis had actually a brief meeting in ~ the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with President man F. Kennedy, one ardent follower of Davis’ career. Later that day, Davis weaved his means through a celebratory crowd and extended a hand come Coach Schwartzwalder.

"Put 'er there, Coach," Davis said. "Shake the hand the shook hands through President Kennedy!"<5>

On Dec. 29, when in mountain Francisco preparing for the East-West Shrine game, David showed up at a push conference with his lawyer Anthony DeFilipo and Browns owner art Modell to sign what was then the largest NFL contract because that a rookie - $65,000 for 3 years to add a $15,000 signing bonus.

His final semester of college was a whirlwind that activity. He had actually returned to school, yet his everyday routine was constantly interrupted by phone calls - invitations come speak in ~ banquets or obtain awards. He to be gone virtually every weekend, making appearances in high college gyms, auditoriums and corporate boardrooms. By April, he’d had enough. He gained off the public merry-go-round and focused on his studies. In June, the led the Syracuse graduation march before transforming his attention earlier to football.

He was still feeling worn down once he traveled to Buffalo in late June to prepare because that the Coaches All-America Game. On July 8, he reported to the Browns’ cultivate camp in Hiram, Ohio, and from there it to be on come Evanston, Ill., to occupational with the college All-Stars for their game versus the NFL’s eco-friendly Bay Packers top top Aug. 3.

While in Buffalo, Davis started having trouble with nose bleeds, bleeding gums and also infected wisdom teeth. By the time he acquired to Chicago, the difficulty was severe sufficient to send him come the hospital where the wisdom this were removed. That rejoined the team, however his dental worries kept him from eating well. There to be no signs of trouble on the field, though, and also he was the team’s leading rusher in a scrimmage versus the Chicago Bears.

But, top top the Saturday before the game, Davis wake up to discover that one side of his confront was bad swollen. A trainer sent him come the hospital. The initial diagnosis to be mumps or mononucleosis, yet they shortly learned the was an ext serious. The diagnosis was acute monocytic leukemia and treatment was started immediately,

Browns owner art Modell was given the grim diagnosis over the phone immediately, yet Davis no told he had actually leukemia till October. Modell flew come Chicago, traction Davis indigenous the All-Star roster and also flew him back to Cleveland, whereby he to be checked into Marymount Hosital. Team physician Dr. Vic Ippolito notified a brand-new series the tests, hoping the Chicago physicians were wrong. But the leukemia diagnosis to be confirmed and pathologists estimated Davis had six months to a year left to live.

Modell dubbed for a exclusive meeting with neighborhood reporters wherein he mutual the dire news and asked the they no write around it, a request the was supposedly honored.

Davis, meanwhile, knew he had some sort of blood illness, however said he never ever was in pain, no one did he feeling sick. Chemotherapy placed the condition in remission and Davis was feeling well once he to be summoned come a meeting through hematologist Dr. Austin Weisberger, Ippolito and Modell on Oct. 4, where he to be told he had leukemia.

Can it be cured? he asked. No, he was told, but with the condition in remission, you have the right to play football if friend want.

Modell mutual the news through his coach, Paul Brown. Brown, who had actually looked forward to the day when Jim Brown and Ernie Davis could show up in the Browns’ backfield together, to be skeptical. He found an additional hematologist that recommended that Brown no play Davis. The rift in between Modell and also Brown end whether to play Davis or not would certainly fracture your relationship and also lead come Brown’s dismissal after the 1962 season.

Modell, however, walk not give up ~ above Davis. The sought professional from approximately the globe, consisting of a couple of whose alternative treatments were contrasted to something the end of a Boris Karloff movie. Davis, too, carried on - functioning out in a gym and also playing basketball to store in shape. Jim Brown helped him floor a job with Pepsi Cola, but he never provided up expect of playing in the NFL.

His only public appearance with the Browns come on Aug. 18, 1962, once he was introduced to Cleveland fans before a preseason game.

"The PA announcer said, 'Here is another member that the Browns’ attack team, No. 45, Ernie Davis,' " Modell recalled. "The ar was bedlam.”

“He had actually on his slim tie, tweed jacket, nice shirt,” recalled john Brown, a Syracuse teammate who was additionally a Cleveland player. “It was prefer there was a hush as he walked out to the center of the field. You had something choose 85,000 world go crazy as soon as the spotlight fight him. I'm sure there were a lot of people that were approximately that told their kids."<6>

During the 1962 season, Davis ran non-contact drills v the team, helped build game plans and spent most games on the Cleveland bench.

In mid-December, the accompanied his old college coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, top top a recruiting pilgrimage to brand-new Haven, Conn. The target was Floyd Little, a record-breaking high school running back. Davis told him of the an excellent opportunities at Syracuse, residence of the great Jim Brown. You can even gain to stay No. 44, that hinted. In January, Davis make a follow-up call to Little. Have you decided where you’re going, Davis asked?

"You recognize I'm going come Syracuse," tiny said. "My mom wants me to prosper up just like you."<7>


Helen Gott wasn’t particularly fond of athletes. She to be quiet and also reserved, deeply religious and no drink. Her dad to be an army colonel. Athletes, ~ above the other hand, to be loud and profane. That’s what she thought. Till she met Ernie Davis.

It was the feather of 1960. Davis was an All-American football player; Gott was a shy student in the first year at Syracuse. Their courses crossed at the Tippin’ Inn, a hangout near the Syracuse campus whereby black students congregated. Gott to be there through a couple of fellow freshmen; Davis was amongst a gaggle of track and football players. They started talking.

"I didn't recognize that much around football, and also I carry out remember informing him i didn't know he was a large star, and him laughing,” Gott later on recalled.<8>

It to be a casual meeting. Things picked increase in the fall, ~ Helen was named “weekend queen,” an honor significant by an appearance at a Syracuse U. Football game. Ernie i found it her and soon they were dating.

They went for rides in his Edsel, walks in Thornden Park, dinners at the Tippin’ Inn or dances where as much as 80 black color students would certainly toss in $5 apiece to rental a room at a restaurant and hire a tape so they could dance to your heart’s content. Felix Cavaliere, a Syracuse student who would later form the rock group, the Young Rascals, was very early attraction.

Helen had actually met his parents in Elmira; he had actually met her parents in eastern Orange, N.J. They to be a serious couple and, though no formally engaged, to be discussing marriage as Ernie dealt with his illness.

At the time of his chicken livers dinner, the leukemia was back.

Davis make the efforts to it is in discreet in his battle, yet friends noticed once he stuffed cotton up his sleep to curtail the nosebleeds. They noticed as his trips come the hospital for treatment were much more frequent. On might 16, that told arts Modell he was entering the hospital. Davis routinely kept Modell updated on his clinical care due to the fact that the Browns to be footing the bill. Yet he usually offered Modell a telephone call; this time he arrived on Modell’s office in person.

"You don't have to come under to call me that," said Modell. "Call me once you obtain out. I want you to acquire busy and also start lifting weights." The two males chatted briefly, shook hands, and Davis left.<9>

Davis checked right into Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland. On the evening of might 17, he lapsed right into a coma. In ~ 2 a.m. The coughed once and died.

That morning, Gott remained in her Sigma Delta Tau sorority home when the university chaplain approached her with the news. Suddenly, she wanted to be alone.

"I walk outside and sat under a tree. At that time, even with the faith that I had in God, it seemed unfair. The seemed favor he had actually done all the ideal things. He had led a an excellent life. He had overcome obstacles. He had excelled. He would certainly be just a good role model. Not only for black color youths, but for everybody. This to be a truly great person. If he didn't ask the question—'Why me?'—I think i did. Friend know, "Why him? Why Ernie?”<10>


Although Davis was just 23 when he died, his tradition runs deep. At the moment of his fatality he to be eulogized in both dwellings of the U.S. Congress. His wake up in Elmira drew lasted more than 12 hours and also drew an ext than 10,000 mourners that waited in lines 2 blocks long at the ar House, a recreation facility Davis had spent countless hours in together a kid. A blog post from chairman Kennedy was check out at his funeral, which was attended by practically every member that the Cleveland Browns.  Davis was hidden in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira on may 22.

He was posthumously inducted right into the college Football room of call in 1979. His university coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, said, “I never met an additional human gift as an excellent as Ernie.”

His old high school, Elmira totally free Academy, to be reborn together Ernie Davis center School. A city park throughout the street was called for him and in 1988 a life-sized copper statue that Davis was devoted in prior of the school. Because that years after, Davis’ old high college football coach, Marty Harrigan, placed a ostrich of flower at the foot of the statue on the anniversary that Davis’s death.

Another statue that Davis stand on the campus of Syracuse University, near the spot whereby pre-game soccer rallies space held. A dormitory for the school also bears his name. In 2008, a fictionalized variation of his life to be presented in a film, The Express. The movie, i m sorry fared poorly through critics and at package office, was based on a book, Ernie Davis: The Elmira express by Robert C. Gallagher.

Davis was one of 19 football player to stay No. 44 at Syracuse. 3 of those players were All-Americans: Jim Brown (who recruited Ernie Davis), Ernie Davis (who recruited Floyd Little) and Little. In 2005, Syracuse officially retirement the number. Therefore iconic was the number in Syracuse U. Lore the the United claims Postal business granted the institution permission to use the number in its very own zip code, 13244.

Shortly after ~ Davis’s death, the Browns retirement Davis’s No. 45 regardless of the truth that had never play a down in the NFL.

It took Helen Gott a while to gain over the ns of Davis. On among their trips to she parents’ home, Davis lugged a gift, a 45rpm record of ours Day will certainly Come by Ruby & the Romantics. The couple would go under to the basement and also dance if they played the record over and also over. For years after his death, she could not bear come hear the song. But she perfect her researches at Syracuse and also Columbia, relocated to Kansas City, married a minister and also had a virtually half-century career together Helen Gray, a religious beliefs writer and editor at Kansas City newspapers.

Davis’s football teammates ongoing to sing his praises, some more than 50 year after his death. John Mackey credited Davis for encouraging him come woo the mrs he would ultimately marry, also giving the the tricks to his lover Edsel ~ above occasion.

John Brown, his teammate at Syracuse go on to have actually a effective career through the Browns and, later, in banking. Brown, who common an apartment through Davis in Cleveland, named a son after his Heisman-winning teammate. Brown acknowledged that art Modell and also the Browns were gracious in their treatment of Davis however wishes they would have actually done one an ext thing:

"I want him, hoped because that him, to have the ability to run one doggone kickoff back. I think the would have actually satisfied him."<11>

<1> “A Life reduced Short,” william Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<2> “Ernie Davis’ tradition lives on long after his death,” Steve Wyche,, Oct. 8, 2008.<3> “A Life reduced Short,” wilhelm Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<4> Life, Jan. 11, 1960<5> “A Life cut Short,” william Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<6> “Ernie Davis’ tradition lives on lengthy after his death,” Steve Wyche,, Oct. 8, 2008.<7> “A Life reduced Short,” william Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<8> “From the woman who loved him: The real greatness the Ernie Davis transcended football,” Sean Kirst, Syracuse write-up Standard, Sept. 12, 2008.<9> “A Life cut Short,” william Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<10> Ibid.<11> “Ernie Davis’ legacy lives on long after his death,” Steve Wyche,, Oct. 8, 2008.

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Ernie Davis, footballBorn: December 14, 1939Died: might 18, 1963 (age 23)

Here's a video tribute come Davis produced by Syracuse University:

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